Virginians Must Begin to Think Creatively About Huge Transportation Needs, Analyst Says

December 5, 2008 — No subject has been more contentious in Virginia in recent years than transportation.

In the face of an alarming economic downturn, transportation more than ever ranks among the state's most critical problems, according to an analysis in the latest issue of the Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

With both an aging and a fast-growing population in the state, policymakers must begin to think creatively, take real action and closely assess results, warns Alan E. Pisarski, a nationally known transportation analyst and adviser.

"We should not be trying simply to adapt ourselves and our economy to high transportation costs," Pisarski says in the report, "Facing Virginia's Transportation Challenges," which is the focus of the November issue of the Virginia News Letter.

"Rather, we should imagine a world where low-cost and environmentally sound transportation has permitted us largely to overcome the time cost of distance and visualize how that world might come to be."

Assuring access to work is the basis for a productive economy, Pisarski emphasizes. "With a threatened economy, this is not the time to be inhibiting the business interactions of our society. Instead we should be seeking to stimulate them — in ways that are environmentally sound, safe and cost-effective."

The author of a definitive National Academy of Sciences study, "Commuting in America," Pisarski cites four levels of travel needs that must all be met simultaneously. They are interstate commerce, statewide economic promotion, major metro area needs and local community needs of daily life.

Adding to the critical nature of the issue, a hallmark of the coming years will be the aging of the massive baby-boomer generation. This will dramatically change travel patterns, as some older citizens continue working and others will also need access to medical and social services.

At the same time, the state's work force will grow more diverse not only in terms of age, sex, race, ethnicity and skills, but in the locations and time patterns of work. Furthermore, Virginia's population growth is projected to continue to be significantly more rapid than the national average, adding to congestion.

A sound transportation policy will be a key to sustaining an affluent society, writes Pisarski, who consults widely with state and federal governments.

In addition to improving the employment climate, uncongested transportation can help stabilize housing values by improving access to all neighborhoods, he writes. Another benefit of sound policy will be Virginia tourism, especially as the baby-boomer generation retires.

But transportation policymakers face complex challenges, he says, because multi-worker households and frequent job changes will continue to generate long work trips for employees, even with more flexible hours provided. Lower-income, two-worker families, pushed to the edge of regions by housing costs, will face the hardship of traveling long distances to different work sites.

In the face of these trends, Pisarski says Virginia needs to adopt a "performance-based, outcome-driven approach" to transportation programs. The state government is working hard to keep the public informed about the status of construction projects, but more needs to be done about monitoring and reporting on congestion and soundness of roads and bridges, he says. A requirement of public reporting of results of projects in meeting goals would be powerful, he adds.

A key element would be a "performance audit," an independent evaluation to gain a clearer picture of need for improvements and to help government agencies set and achieve goals.

The federal government has abandoned states on transportation issues, Pisarski writes. A federal "performance bonus" to states that receive the best results on certain targets such as reducing congestion, pollution and accidents, could be a great benefit, he suggests.

The state's huge transportation challenges can yet be met with hard work, he believes. "Virginia is a growing society and not one that can afford to do nothing."

For interviews, Alan E. Pisarski may be reached at 703-941-4257 or at alanpisarski@alanpisarski.com.

— By Robert Brickhouse